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Published: Sunday, 3/31/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Jeep plant revs engines for new Cherokee

Officials confident demand will power future

BY TYREL LINKHORN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Zach Leroux, plant manager of the Chrysler Toledo North Assembly Plant says hiring for the second shift, which will start work in the year's third quarter, is "completely on schedule." Zach Leroux, plant manager of the Chrysler Toledo North Assembly Plant says hiring for the second shift, which will start work in the year's third quarter, is "completely on schedule."
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NEW YORK — With the public debut of the 2014 Jeep Cherokee, we’re now seeing the result of Chrysler Group LLC’s $500 million investment to make the Toledo Assembly Complex one of the most flexible and advanced auto assembly plants in the United States.

The Cherokee promises to inject new life into the plant, bringing a second shift of workers and more job security for the future.

The plant produced 243,000 vehicles in 2011 and 275,00 vehicles last year, the majority of them Wranglers. By 2015, union officials say there’s potential for Toledo to build half a million vehicles a year.

“We’ll be pushing 500,000 cars a year in Toledo, and that’ll make us the largest assembly plant in North America,” said Bruce Baumhower, president of United Auto Workers Local 12.

Of course, it remains to be seen if there will be enough demand to need that many vehicles per year. For his part, Mr. Baumhower is confident there will be. And if there is, the plant would need a third shift and hundreds of additional workers.

“I believe we will need a third shift,” he said. “I believe within 18 months from now we’ll need to add even more people to meet the demand of this new vehicle.”

Company officials said last week at the New York International Auto Show that the plant has the potential for additional capacity, but it’s far too early to talk about future plans in Toledo, especially considering the Cherokee is still months away from dealer showrooms.

Officials are happy, however, to talk about the second shift, which is scheduled to begin in the year’s third quarter.

Chrysler has already gathered applications for those jobs, and Toledo plant manager Zach Leroux said the hiring is on track.

“We’re now going through the selection process for our new hires, bringing them through the assessment process, getting those guys ready to come on board as well,” he said. “We’re completely on schedule.”

Between the new shift and extra workers to keep the Wrangler line running through breaks, the plant will be adding about 1,300 new jobs this year.

The company moved an all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee in front of the Jeep sign after the vehicle made its debut in new York. About 350 vehicles have been produced so far, plant manager Zach Leroux said. The company moved an all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee in front of the Jeep sign after the vehicle made its debut in new York. About 350 vehicles have been produced so far, plant manager Zach Leroux said.
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Workers built the last Jeep Liberty in August. Within weeks, contractors had picked the inside of the plant clean.

“They gutted our body shop in about two and a half to three weeks,” autoworker John Casto said Wednesday just after Jeep unveiled the Cherokee. “It was inspiring and almost frightening the way they could clear stuff out.”

Mr. Casto was one of a small group of autoworkers from the Toledo Assembly Complex who went to the New York auto show to see the debut of the vehicle they’ll be building. Mr. Casto is tasked with helping to take workstations from the concept stage and actually putting them on the floor.

As part of its investment, Chrysler upgraded the paint shop including adding a new process to inject sound-deadening material into body cavities. The plant now has more advanced lasers for measuring and welding, 963 new robots, and a 252,000-square-foot expansion of the body shop.

“It’s a lot more advanced,” Mr. Casto said. “It’s going to be much better ergonomically.”

Mr. Leroux said most of the laid off workers from the Liberty line are now back on the job.

Company officials have said production of the Cherokee will start in May and ramp up through the beginning of the third quarter. Right now the plant is building pre-production models for engineering tests. Mr. Leroux said about 350 vehicles have been finished so far.

The company moved one of them out in front of the large Jeep sign visible from I-75 shortly after the SUV's New York debut on Wednesday.

After years of the industry announcing downgrades, layoffs, and production decreases, Mr. Leroux said it's exciting to be able to introduce an all-new product, new jobs, and increasing sales. 

"It’s all good news, and now with that comes a great sense of responsibility we have as a plant to deliver that," he said. "It’s certainly widespread and understood through the plant.”

The new equipment in the Toledo plant allows for as many as four different vehicles based on the same architecture to be built on the same line. When Chrysler Group chief executive Sergio Marchionne announced the $500 million investment in November, 2011, he said the plant was scheduled to get another vehicle.

"There will be an additional car here,” Mr. Marchionne said at the time. “It will be another vehicle, but significantly different from Jeep.”

However, there do not appear to be any immediate plans to add that additional vehicle.

Alec Gutierrez, a senior market analyst with Kelley Blue Book, said he doesn't expect the line to build anything except the Cherokee in 2013 and 2014.

“It sounds like they’re well positioned to take on additional product, but not in the near future,” he said.

A third shift for Cherokee isn't impossible, Mr. Gutierrez said, but it remains to be seen what kind of consumer demand there will be for the new vehicle once it goes on sale.

He expects much higher production volumes for the Cherokee than Liberty, which had hovered around 78,000 vehicles a year the last two years, but said its tough to forecast just how well the Cherokee will sell against its well-entrenched competitors until reviewers have a chance to see how the Cherokee performs on the road.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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